Nobody on LSU’s defense went into this season with his eyes closed.
That goes for everybody from veteran defensive coordinator John Chavis to senior linebacker Lamin Barrow to the horde of younger players the Tigers have played on that side of the ball.
When you lose as many talented football players as LSU did to the NFL draft a year ago, there’s going to be a drop-off.
That drop-off has been glaring at times this season, but don’t think for a minute that anybody on LSU’s defense is feeling sorry for themselves.
They can’t afford to, not with Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M coming to Tiger Stadium on Saturday.
“It’s important for us to end on a good note and get our respect back,” said Barrow, who leads LSU and is seventh in the SEC with 75 total tackles.
“This year, we knew we were going to have a younger defense, but that’s never an excuse here at LSU. That doesn’t change the pride we have here on defense. The experience we got this year is going to help next year, and so will the growing pains. It hasn’t been what we’re used to, but we also know we’re not that far away from being the kind of defense we want to be. We just have to be more consistent.”
Chavis said those growing pains have been more pronounced than he expected and have lasted longer. Part of that is that he’s playing two true freshmen and two sophomores in his defensive backfield rotation, not to mention the fact that the Tigers are without eight of the defenders that held Manziel to no touchdown passes, intercepted him three times and sacked him three times a year ago in LSU’s 24-19 win over Texas A&M.
Of those eight, six were underclassmen who were taken in the NFL draft.
Even with that mass exodus to the pros, it hasn't been a complete disaster for the Tigers on defense. They're still fourth in the SEC in total defense. But the frustrating thing for them is that they simply haven't been able to get off the field this season in too many critical situations.
“It’s not just the young guys. It’s myself included,” Barrow said. “We just haven’t made some of the plays we know we can make. I put a lot of pressure on myself coming back for my last year to do a lot of things, and I haven’t always played the way I wanted to. But there’s still time with these last couple of games to get it right and put it all together.
“We’ve done it in spurts. We just need to do it for a whole game.”
One of the biggest differences with this LSU defense is that it hasn’t stopped the run, which has been a staple under Chavis. The Tigers are 10th in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 152.9 yards per game. That’s after giving up just 101.6 yards per game on the ground last season and 90.1 yards in 2011.
Big plays have also been a problem for this LSU defense. The Tigers have already given up 39 plays of 20 yards or more this season with three games to play (counting the bowl). Over the previous three seasons, they averaged giving up 39 “big plays” for the entire season.
“A lot of that has been communication breakdowns, a lack of focus on our part and something we’ve been dealing with all season,” Barrow said. “But we’ve had fewer mistakes as the season’s gone on, and having the extra week to get ready for this game, I think we’ll cut down on them even more.”
The Tigers smothered Manziel a year ago and never really allowed him to scramble. He was held to 27 yards rushing on 17 carries and threw it a career-high 56 times in the game.
But where he has carved teams apart this season is finding receivers open down the field when he’s on the move or simply buying time in the pocket.
“He’s a passer first, and people underestimate that about him,” Barrow said. “He does a great job getting out of the pocket and scrambling and making a play when he has to, but he can beat you throwing the ball. He draws the defense to him, and that helps his receivers get open, and then he does a great job of finding those open receivers no matter where he is on the field.”
The Tigers plan to rotate players two and even three deep at some positions to stay fresh and help combat the Aggies’ breakneck pace.
Against Alabama two weeks ago, LSU wore down in the second half on both sides of the ball after tying the game at 17-17 in the early minutes of the third quarter. The Crimson Tide responded with three consecutive touchdown drives of 70-plus yards.
“Coming off the loss to Alabama and already having a three-loss season, the only thing on our mind is coming out and showing everybody that we’re still the same Tigers and still a team to reckon with,” Barrow said.
“There’s a lot of tradition and a lot of pride here on defense, and we don’t want to be known as the defense that didn’t meet that standard," he added. "We’re going to step out on the field like men, and everybody on this defense is going to take it upon themselves to step it up to another level.”
Given the way Johnny Football is mowing through defenses in this league, they might want to take it up a few levels.